During the past couple of weeks, I’ve talked with several vets about dealing with their triggers and the flashbacks and panic attacks that accompany them. It is a frightening experience that stays with the person long after the trigger has past. With the July 4th holiday coming up, we know a major time for triggers is just around the corner.
I always ask the vet who has been triggered if he knows what triggered him or her. It’s important to understand the basis of your triggers, so that you can prepare yourself mentally for them in the future. For example, if fireworks trigger you, avoiding them is important. If that is not possible, then preparing yourself mentally that fireworks are going to happen is an important step to take. Let your neighbors and friends know that fireworks trigger you and ask them to tell you when they are shooting them off. Tell yourself that fireworks will be happening and it’s okay. I know this sounds easier said than done. It isn’t easy, but it’s also important to put your mind in the right mindset and prepare yourself. It’s what you did before any mission when deployed. You put yourself in the proper frame of mind to take on whatever was ahead. This is what you’re doing now.
If you get triggered, here are some steps you can take to de-escalate from the trigger and to calm your mind and body.
- Breathe. It’s the most simple thing you can do and yet the most effective. Taking deep breaths calms your body’s fight or flight response. Breathe in for a count of four and feel your belly push out as you breathe in more deeply. Hold your breath for a count of one or two and then let it out slowly. Repeat. As you take those deep breaths, focus on your breathing and on calming your body. Visualize your breath being sent to various parts of your body in which you feel tension. If your chest is tight, focus on your chest and directing your breaths there. Unclench your fists and stretch out your fingers. Scrunch your shoulders and then relax them as you breathe. Not only is this helping to calm your body, but this visualization calms your mind, as you are no longer focusing on the trigger, but on your body.
- Practice grounding exercises which bring you from your memories into the present. As you are taking those deep breaths, focus on what you can see around you. For example, if you are outside, focus on what you’re seeing right in front of you. Really look at the scene and notice the shapes, colors, smells, and what you can feel. As I type this, I’m outside and I’m seeing a yellow butterfly flying and I can hear four distinct songs that the birds are singing. I can hear a squirrel chattering and I see my dog lying on the grass sunning herself. I feel the warm air, but I’m in the shade so there’s also a coolness. This is my present reality. This exercise is a good one to practice at least once a day. It’s a mindfulness exercise in which you are only concerned with the present moment, not what happened in the past or what will happen in the future. You are not thinking about anything except for being in that moment. If you are not in a place that makes you calm when you focus on it, then focus on your body. What does your shirt feel like, your feet in your shoes? Press your feet to the floor and focus on this feeling. Focus on the chair you are sitting in. How hard is it or soft? As you focus on your body, also continue deep breathing.
- Finding your calm/safe place. This is another visualization exercise in which you use your mind to take you back to a place in which you felt perfectly calm and safe. It may be a real place or one that you make up. (My backyard that I described calms me.) Imagine yourself in that place and focus on what you’re seeing. Notice all the details. Then focus on what you’re hearing, what you’re feeling, and the smells around you. As you take yourself to this calming place, take deep breaths, and allow your mind to experience everything about this place that relaxes you. When you become agitated or experience panic because of a trigger, take deep breaths and go to that place in which you feel safe. Stay there for as long as it takes to calm your mind and body.
- There are other things you can do to bring you back to the present and calm you down such as using aromatherapy – scents that trigger good memories. Even placing ice cubes in your hands can bring you back to the present.
Always remember, at Battle in Distress, we get all those reasons for the triggers and we’re here for you, whether it be just to talk or to have someone walk you through these exercises to calm you down. You’re not walking alone.